Bucs Fight Back But Fall to Falcons
Scott Smith, Buccaneers.com, published 15 October 2018|
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored a touchdown on their first drive on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but missed the ensuing extra point, which would prove costly. The Atlanta Falcons scored touchdowns on their first three drives, however, and the Buccaneers never fully recovered despite an impressive second-half effort, falling 34-29. The Buccaneers fell to 2-3 on the season after a 2-0 start, though their division record is even at 1-1. The Falcons improved to 2-4.
The expected shootout between the two NFL teams allowing the most points per game took a while to truly materialize. With Jameis Winston back in the lineup, Tampa Bay's offense did produce 512 yards to 416 for the Falcons, including three scoring drives of 75 or more yards. However, Matt Ryan and the Falcons built a 15-point lead by midway through the second quarter, leaving the Bucs in comeback mode. They were able to claw back to a 24-22 deficit early in the fourth quarter after the defense stiffened and pitched a third-quarter shutout, but Ryan countered with his third touchdown pass.
Winston's fourth touchdown pass with four minutes left closed the gap to two once again but Matt Bryant hit a 57-yard field goal to make it a five-point game. With no timeouts and one minute to work with, Winston drove the Buccaneers down to the Atlanta 21, where they had time for one more play with seven seconds left.
Rather than throw a low-percentage pass into a crowded end zone the Buccaneers employed a different sort of gamble. Winston took the snap but then darted directly up the middle and across the 10-yard line. Knowing the game would end if he was tackled, Winston tried to get the ball to one of his designed pitch options, but the lateral hit the ground and was never fully recovered before going out of bounds.
"Guys made some great plays to give ourselves a chance," said Winston of the final drive that set up the failed lateral play. "We prepared for that a lot. The main thing is, don't get tackled with the ball in your hands. Give everybody a chance by either lateraling it or…you can't go down with the ball in your hands. That's all. We had a good chance there; it just didn't turn out how we wanted."
The Buccaneers' difficulty in slowing down Atlanta's offense in the first half was best illustrated just before the intermission. Winston's second touchdown pass, a 10-yard strike to TE O.J. Howard, pulled the Bucs within one score with just 29 seconds left in the first half. However, Ryan quickly completed a trio of passes for 47 yards and the Falcons were able to add a 45-yard Bryant field goal before time expired.
That was part of a 275-yard first half for Atlanta; the Bucs would hold them to 141 yards after the break. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers rolled up 324 yards of offense in the second half and surpassed 500 yards in a game for just the eighth time in team history.
Tampa Bay's defense was particularly frustrated on third downs, as Ryan repeatedly converted on third downs of six or more yards. He pulled that off five times and the Falcons were able to succeed on eight of 13 third-down tries overall. The Bucs were also on the wrong end of the turnover battle, two to zero, and a deflected ball interception in the end zone early in the third quarter was particularly damaging. Finally, red zone production proved to be a deciding factor – Atlanta scored touchdowns on all of their trips inside the 20 while the Bucs were four of six.
"In the second half, the offense, we were pretty proud of ourselves for moving the ball down the field into the red zone, but we've got to get touchdowns when we get in there," said WR Adam Humphries, whose 51-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter got the ball down to the two and came two plays before the deflected-ball interception.
Winston was sharp in his 2018 starting debut. The fourth-year passer began the year on a three-game league suspension and then came in to play the second half in a Week Four contest at Chicago. After the Bucs' bye week gave him extra time to regain his form, Winston completed 30 of 41 passes for 395 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 115.4. He also scrambled effectively, picking up 31 yards on five carries. Winston threw touchdown passes to Howard, TE Cam Brate, WR Chris Godwin and RB Peyton Barber and had five different targets gain more than 50 yards each day.
"I had to play better [in the second half]," said Winston. "I had two early turnovers that hurt us, definitely, so I had to bounce back and play better, and the guys had my back and we played well."
Winston was also aided by a strong day from Peyton Barber and the Bucs' best rushing effort of the young season. Barber ran 13 times for 82 yards and the Bucs picked up 123 yards on the ground, 6.2 per tote. "We were just taking what the defense gave us, doing what we do," said Humphries. "Peyton did a great job running the ball today and the O-Line protected well. We were just making plays down the field."
The kicking game proved to be an edge for Atlanta, however. While Bryant made both of his long-distance field goals, Catanzaro missed that first extra point, forcing the Bucs to go for two when they made the game 24-22 in the fourth quarter. That attempt failed; had the Bucs been down by just three at the end, rather than five, they could have sent the game to overtime with a field goal. Catanzaro later hit two extra point tries and a 35-yard field goal as part of the Buccaneers' spirited comeback.
The Buccaneers took the opening drive 75 yards for a touchdown. Winston hit Godwin over the middle twice for a total of 24 yards and Barber broke off a 28-yard run, his longest of the season, to get the ball into Atlanta territory. After missing on a second-down shot into the end zone to Jackson, Winston threw to Cam Brate on third down for the score. Brate was isolated on the left side and LB De'Vondre Campbell had excellent coverage, but Brate leaped over the defender to make the catch and then push the last yard into the end zone.
The Falcons countered with a touchdown drive on their first possession, also going 75 yards on six plays, the last one a 35-yard scoring catch by Mohamed Sanu. Ryan completed all five of his passes on the drive for 74 yards. Matt Bryant made the extra point to put the home team up by one.
The Bucs got the ball just across midfield on their second drive on a great diving catch by Evans but it stalled there and Bryan Anger punted it down to Atlanta's 14 with five minutes left in the first quarter. The Falcons were more successful on their second possession, marching 86 yards for a second touchdown.
Ryan started it with a 22-yard strike to rookie WR Calvin Ridley, then converted a pair of long third downs, one on a pass to TE Austin Hooper and one on a 10-yard strike to Jones. On the latter play, Ryan still got the ball off despite getting hit as the Bucs brought a big blitz. The Bucs appeared to stop the Falcons' next third down, deep in their own territory, but Gerald McCoy was flagged for illegal use of hands. On the next play, RB Ito Smith broke through for a 14-yard scoring run.
After a three-and-out by Tampa Bay's offense, Atlanta got the ball back at its own 42. That drive also resulted in a touchdown, as the Falcons again converted two long third downs to keep the ball moving. The first was on a sparkling one-handed catch by Sanu. On the second one the Bucs again brought a blitz and Ryan was buried but not before he got off a lob to a wide-open Jones for 28 yards. On the next play, Hooper caught a short pass from Ryan in the left flat and stepped over a tackle by Smith to score from nine yards out.
The Buccaneers' ensuing possession ended in the game's first turnover. A sharp pass over the middle to Jackson picked up a quick 19 and Winston made a good decision on a third-and-three read-option, keeping the ball and picking up four yards. However, two plays later Winston tried to go deep down the left seam to Jackson and S Damontae Kazee roamed over from centerfield to make an uncontested interception at the one-yard line.
The Bucs' defense responded with its first stop, chasing Ryan into a throwaway on a third-and-one rollout. After the punt, the Bucs had the ball back just shy of midfield with 3:21 left in the half. Winston took that good field position and turned it into a 52-yard touchdown drive, doing a lot of the work himself with three heady scrambles for 14 yards, including one that he extended with a nifty spin move. Rookie RB Ronald Jones contributed a pair of catches for 11 yards and Winston ended it with a sharp 10-yard touchdown pass to Howard, who was well-covered but able to haul it in and power across the goal line.
Unfortunately, the 29 seconds left in the half after Howard's score proved to be enough for the Falcons to tack on three points. After Ryan completed three passes for 47 yards, Bryant came on to nail a 45-yard field goal and make it 24-13 going into the intermission.
The Buccaneers did get a quick stop to open the second half. After giving the Falcons a free five yards by jumping offside, they got those back on a five-yard tackle for loss by Vinny Curry on Tevin Coleman. A blitzing M.J. Stewart then tipped a second-down pass to force an incompletion, and a third-down screen to Smith was enveloped by Alexander for a loss of five.
The Bucs appeared to be about to cut into Atlanta's lead when Winston hit Adam Humphries on a crossing route and the slot receiver sprinted 51 yards down to the two-yard line. However, two plays later, after a false start pushed the ball back to the seven, Winston tried to hit a well-covered Godwin in the back of the end zone and the result was a deflection that went high in the air and was easily intercepted by Brian Poole.
Tampa Bay's defense did get the ball back. After Ryan converted one third down with a 14-yard pass over the middle to Jones, two penalties knocked the Falcons back into a first-and-25. DE Carl Nassib batted down a second-down pass and Pierre-Paul broke through on third down for the Bucs' first sack of Ryan. After Atlanta's punt, Winston hit Howard twice for a total of 37 yards to put the team in position for Catanzaro's 35-yard field goal.
The Falcons got out to their own 43 on a 15-yard run by Coleman but the drive stalled shy of midfield, with Lavonte David breaking up a third-down pass meant for Austin Hooper. Atlanta punted down to the Bucs' 15-yard line with a few ticks left on the third-down clock. Barber immediately got the ball closer to midfield with a 24-yard run to take the game into the fourth quarter.
After switching sides, the Bucs immediately got gains of 12 yards by Humphries and 21 by Jackson, sandwiched around a 10-yard Barber run. Facing third-and-one at the Atlanta nine, the Bucs faked a handoff and Winston found Godwin right at the goal line for his third touchdown pass of the day. The Bucs needed a two-point conversion to tie it but a rollout pass attempt was foiled by DE Takkarist McKinley, leaving the score at 24-22 with 11:34 to play.
Ryan fired right back with a rollout 32-yard connection with Jones. The Bucs then forced a third-and-nine but Ryan was able to scramble for 13 yards and the conversion. After getting the ball down to the Bucs' six on two completions to Hooper, Ryan completed the drive with a touchdown pass to Coleman.